Cross­ing the River

Shalom Eilati, Vern Lenz, trans.
  • Review
By – December 6, 2011
Grow­ing old­er has its rewards. Recent events may be hard to remem­ber, but the rec­ol­lec­tions of one’s youth become more vivid and press to come forth, to be reliv­ed and retold. It is bet­ter yet if the teller can ver­i­fy the valid­i­ty of the mem­o­ries and has the tal­ent to limn them in mas­ter­ful prose to share with the read­er. Shalom Eilati has done this in Hebrew, and Vern Lenz has recap­tured his work in the Eng­lish trans­la­tion. 

This is the sto­ry of a lit­tle boy whose life began in idyl­lic cir­cum­stances, sur­round­ed by love and cul­ture in Kovno, Lithua­nia , a world cen­ter for Jew­ry in both reli­gious and cul­tur­al terms. His moth­er, the stronger par­ent, was a nurse, a poet, and an ardent Zionist. 

She was dar­ing and cre­ative. Eilati’s father, a pro­fes­sor and lec­tur­er, but the more pas­sive of the cou­ple, and an ear­ly depor­tee to labor camps, did sur­vive, albeit bare­ly. His sis­ter fell vic­tim to a false sav­ior, a gen­tile woman the moth­er had con­tact­ed while the fam­i­ly was in the ghet­to; she promised to hide the lit­tle sis­ter of the author, but turned the child over to the Nazis. His moth­er, the author is con­vinced, must have died while fighting. 

While still a young boy Eilati was sent on his jour­ney of escape from the ghet­to through the ini­tia­tive of his moth­er. He sur­vived unbe­liev­able expe­ri­ences and nev­er for­got the right­eous gen­tiles who shel­tered him. After the war, he accept­ed the invi­ta­tion of his lacon­ic father to join him in Israel; there, while his father could not allow him­self to ever think or express the pain of hav­ing lost his loved ones, the younger Eilati even­tu­al­ly attained many pro­fes­sion­al goals. 

It is, how­ev­er, his pow­ers of descrip­tion that cap­ture the read­er: the scenes of the ghet­to (at first an adven­ture and replete with cul­ture, lat­er a tragedy); the many places in which, after his escape, he found tem­po­rary refuge; the idio­syn­crasies of peo­ple he met along the way. All through this, like a dis­tant but ever present dirge, is his per­son­al tur­moil as he search­es for his sis­ter, his moth­er, and his father. It will res­onate with all book lovers that when­ev­er he encoun­tered books, whether those gath­ered and hid­den in the ghet­to, or those he came across dur­ing his many adven­tures — includ­ing in lan­guages he could not read — even those from a for­mer Ger­man officer’s library, enthralled him and lift­ed him to anoth­er dimen­sion, trans­port­ing him to a future he hoped he would some­day attain. Writ­ing this mem­oir has helped Eilati unlock the puz­zles of his past and enabled him to rec­on­cile his present life with the images, feel­ings, and thoughts that con­tin­ue to haunt him. The Epi­logue describes his two trips back to the scenes described in the book. Illustrations.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

Discussion Questions